Miriam Lord: Woman leader eventually heard on eve of Women’s Day

Dáil Sketch: McDonald insists on being heard in House that often drowns out women

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald: jousted with the Taoiseach over the never-ending saga of his special communications unit. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald: jousted with the Taoiseach over the never-ending saga of his special communications unit. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

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Such was the sense of excitement and anticipation in the Dáil on Wednesday, the Ceann Comhairle got 24 hours ahead of himself. “Happy International Women’s Day,” beamed Seán Ó Fearghaíl, to the slack-jawed indifference of everyone in the chamber.

His heartfelt felicitations were a day early. Never mind. On Thursday, The Women are going to be held up and admired and respected and praised and taken seriously and listened to and stuff and, and, and . . . And if the festivities go really swimmingly they’ll just have to be held up. The men are taking it well. Sure once a year won’t kill them.

To mark International Women’s Day, Ryan Tubridy is broadcasting his radio show from the Oireachtas restaurant. The last big event there was the Mass Mattie McGrath organised for Ash Wednesday.

Leinster House is a broad church. There may be cake. Lots of events are planned around the place.

The most significant by a mile will happen in the morning at a special Cabinet meeting in Government Buildings, when Ministers agree the final wording of the abortion referendum question before publishing legislation to enable a vote on whether to delete the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution.

On the day that’s in it, it’s a pity that our newest party leader, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, won’t be on her feet for Leaders’ Questions. Thursday is substitute day, when the leaders go off about their business somewhere else and stand-ins are given a stint in the limelight.

No nonsense

Mary Lou takes no nonsense from the men when her turn comes to speak. We knew this long before she got the top job earlier this year as she frequently stepped in for Gerry Adams when he was required up North. But managing to command their attention was no easy task for her to achieve.

Thing is, Mary Lou McDonald wasn’t ever going to be disrespected like that. She wasn’t going to make her equally valid contribution amid a rising hum of conversation

Years ago, some of us grizzled old lifers on the press gallery began to recognise a particular behaviour pattern among a large proportion of male TDs from the two largest parties whenever a female TD was addressing the Dáil at Leaders’ Questions. The male leaders and spokespeople would rise to speak and, outbursts of heckling aside, deputies would keep still and at least give the impression they were listening. But the same didn’t always happen for women.

Instead, with infuriating regularity, the men would start talking among themselves after a few seconds into their contribution. Sometimes getting so loud the Ceann Comhairle would have to shush them. Actually, it still happens today.

Thing is, Mary Lou McDonald wasn’t ever going to be disrespected like that. She wasn’t going to make her equally valid contribution amid a rising hum of conversation. So she would stop talking. “Lads, lads, if you don’t mind. . .” she might say, shooting them an icy glare.

She wouldn’t continue until they piped down. And they did. And they still do.

But the same carry-on still prevails for the more quietly-spoken, less outwardly assertive women TDs.

Mary Lou was in great form on Wednesday jousting with the Taoiseach over the never-ending saga of his special communications unit. There were ructions in the Dáil on Tuesday over it, but passions had cooled considerably 24 hours later. The latest furore over the workings of Leo Varadkar’s controversial communications/spin/propaganda operation may finally be running out of steam. Everyone was in far more agreeable humour, despite another flurry of barbs about the unit’s highly questionable attempts to have newspaper advertorials on the Government’s new national development plan dished up to readers as bona fide news.

They shared a bit of a laugh about Minister of State Kevin Boxer Moran being crowned “King of the Midlands” in one of the write-ups.

This prompted Leo to say that no new monarchs have been designated in Project 2040. (Not unless he wants to award himself a new throne.)

As the communications issue was discussed for the umpteenth time, Mary Lou decided to digress and ask how the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil confidence-and-supply agreement is coming along and when the two parties are getting together to review it.

You did not miss the question, you chancer,' retorted the Sinn Féin leader, smiling over at him. The Taoiseach began to giggle

She was a little confused, because, if she understood him correctly, the Fianna Fáil leader had said a review could happen only after the next budget. But then she heard the Taoiseach saying it should happen before the next budget.

“Perhaps you would enlighten me as to when that review is to happen, what it might consist of and if there has been a meeting of minds between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on this matter,” she asked Leo in one of a battery of questions put to the Taoiseach by McDonald, Micheál Martin and Brendan Howlin on matters relating to his Government department.

Briefing notes

He duly dealt with most of their questions and then sat down before the Ceann Comhairle called time out. He never got to address Mary Lou’s query.

“Your confidence-and-supply arrangement with Micheál?” she prompted. “Eh, I missed the question,” confessed Leo, tidying up all his briefing notes.

“You did not miss the question, you chancer,” retorted the Sinn Féin leader, smiling over at him. The Taoiseach began to giggle.

“I did, actually. But give it to me again.”

“You complete chancer!” said Mary Lou.

“It’s actually quite hard to write them all down and listen at the same time,” Leo protested. “But go ahead.”

Mary Lou looked to the Ceann Comhairle for permission. “So can I put it as a supplementary?”

He said she could. “Oh, excellent!”

Then Ó Fearghaíl looked across at the Labour leader indicating he could ask a supplementary too. “I think I’ll let the deputy go first,” smarmed Brendan.

“I wish to thank the Prince of Wexford for his graciousness,” she smarmed back, revisiting the monarchy question revived by the newspaper coronation of Boxer Moran.

The Ceann Comhairle was surprised at Mary Lou. “I wouldn’t have thought you are a monarchist.”

Howlin rushed to the Sinn Féin leader’s defence. “Oh, no, no, no!” he gurgled, still glowing with delight at having just been called the Prince of Wexford.

Gerry Adams’s successor was adamant. “I am absolutely not. I’m not ascribing any monarchical title to myself.”

As for that confidence-and-supply question, the Taoiseach said the two parties had not yet got around to discussing what comes next. Fine Gael and Sinn Féin – they’re getting awfully pally these days. Anyway brothers, happy International Women’s Day.

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